New Faculty Interview

Dr. Angela Nurse, Diversity Post-Doctoral Fellow

Photo of Angela Nurse

Interview by Nadia Nguyen, Sophomore, Communication Studies

Dr. Angela Nurse 

The challenge in teaching lies in finding ways to get students engaged in courageous dialogue.  Dr. Angela Nurse has cracked the code in finding a teaching style that motivates students to look beyond their cell phone screens for answers. For Nurse, structured and unstructured discussions and dialogue provide students with the opportunity to explore challenging, high-stakes issues and illuminate understandings of different perspectives. Interested in learning more? Check out the interview below to get to know USD’s newest Diversity Post-Doctoral Fellow in the field of Sociology.

Why did you decide to become an educator?

I had a teacher in high school that taught an Advanced Social Studies class and I just came alive in his course. We discussed real issues, contemporary issues, and historical issues. It became less about the grade I got and more about the content and that really inspired me to become an educator. I didn’t know that school could be different than just memorizing math problems or something of that nature. I realized that actually liked thinking about things that were happening around me. That class changed the trajectory of my entire career. After that, I went to college at Michigan State University where I sought out more experiences like the one in my high school social studies course. Having great teachers and being in a classroom where we could actually talk about things that were relevant to me, my identity, and the world that was around me, helped me see things in a new way. I was inspired and I wanted to be apart of that for other people. Those experiences changed the way I thought about what could happen in a classroom. I saw the classroom in a new light; it could be transformative, relevant, and exciting. I hope to create that for other people.

How have your experiences shaped the way you teach today?

Most of my classes are discussion based. We learn together. I try to find ways to make the course accessible to students. I encourage students to use their own experiences to explore the material. Over the course of the semester, the sum-total of all of the various personal narratives help students to see the world through the eyes of other people. This is an essential step in building empathy and curiosity. It also helps the material come alive.

How do you make theory exciting?

The good thing about theory is that there are theories and concepts for almost everything. So it is my job, as the professor, to find the theories that fit what students are excited about and interested in. As students will talk about their experiences, I guide them to the theories and articles that explore those very ideas. Through these conversations, I hope to empower students to see their lives as relevant to sociology and that their experiences can be a launching point for them to do their own investigation and research. Although we do explore theories, I tend to focus on providing interesting stories and defining the undergirding concepts. In an introductory course, I don’t want to get bogged down about talking about the nitty gritty of theory, instead I want to empower students with the building blocks of sociology to build their own theories based on their perspectives.

How do you create a collaborative learning environment?

That can be tricky because you will always have a situation where some people want to participate and some people don’t. I have to build in activities that cultivate non-speakers. I try to find ways for people’s voices to get heard, even if they don’t feel comfortable speaking. I tend to do a lot of activities where students down their ideas without their names and then switch with their peers. When I call on students to share, they end up reading someone else’s ideas. This way students don’t feel the pressure of sharing something that’s personal. I find that when students are reading something or someone else’s ideas they feel less nervous and not so intimidated about speaking in front of the class. It is important for me to try to find access points for every level of participation because I realize that it can be intimidating to speak in front of so many people.

Do you find that relationship building happens equally as much outside of the classroom? Office hours? Emails? Or do you find that it all happens in the classroom?

I think it happens in the classroom. The best conversations I have had individually with students typically happen right after class. It becomes an extension of that sense of community we created during class time. Sometimes it will be a group of students or just one student. Office hours are important to have check-ins with students, but in terms of the great discussions, the meaty conversations typically happen immediately after or even sometimes before class. These are the things that help build intimacy.

What is your most memorable teaching moment?

I was teaching a Sex and Gender class, which is a very difficult topic because it is so integrated into our daily lives often to understand the world without our gender binary glasses. In the beginning students were very resistant to acknowledging that there are multiple genders, sexualities and that the area of sex and gender is fuzzy and gray. We spent all semester grappling with these issues. Towards the end of the semester we watched an interview of famous author who oversimplified the experience of women who are transgender. I threw it out there because I knew it had just been in the news and it was a timely example of the very issues we were exploring in class. I was prepared for them to overlook the nuances and take what she said for face value. But the students surprised me, they immediately understood. They just got it. I was so shocked. They felt so comfortable and empowered to critique someone who was quite famous and respected. At the beginning of the class they really struggled but at that moment they did not even see this as a challenge. They recognized the complexity of gender and sexuality. It was best moment because my goal is always for students to acknowledge that reality is complicated. Humans are complicated and our experiences are so diverse that one ideology cannot encompass the breadth of the human experience. The students saw through this famous author to the humanity and complexity of a group of people who are often marginalized and oppressed. This was a profound classroom moment that surprised and inspired me.

Can you think of a time where you had a difficult teaching situation? How did you approach the situation? What did you learn from it?

In my early days of teaching it was really hard to recognize that everyone has their own learning trajectories. People start from a multitude of places. I remember a student said something pretty racist and sexist. I got so angry. I remember I started to sweat and began talking fast and assertively. In response the student definitely shut down. I could tell from that moment on he felt very alienated from the class. I had effectively pushed the student away. After that I learned that a targeted assertive approach to misguided ideas is not the best way to help someone learn and appreciate a different perspective. Instead I learned to make note of the student’s misunderstanding and address the underlying issues throughout the semester though lectures and discussion questions. Each student is on their own unique journey and my job is to be a guide, not a judge.

What advice would you give to a new faculty member?

I would say adaptability. You have to be willing to change your syllabus for each new group of students and to incorporate contemporary events. Of course you have a lesson plan and learning objectives but we have to be able to change our approach style even inside of a semester. Its been vital for me to take stock of who I’m working with, the specific issues students are grappling with and find ways to best engage them. You can’t have a one size fits all model. It has been vital that I be aware of the boredom that can set in and think of new ways to combat that. You can’t be an excellent teacher without being ready to make a hard change.

How can higher education do better?

I would go with some of the things Malcolm Gladwell has said. We aren’t good at maximizing the talent in our society. There are a lot of people who don’t have access to higher education for a number of reasons. Poverty being one of them. The biggest challenge of higher education is making use of the great amount of talent we have in our country. Unfortunately we are skimming from the top, the top wealthy portion of our population. That is a problem. We are not making use of the greatness that is sitting right in front of our faces. It starts before higher education. We are struggling as a society.

What do you hope to accomplish?

In the face of recent trends toward anti-intellectualism, I hope to inspire students to get excited about learning by making space for curiosity and empathy.